American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Senate Science and Technology Caucus Roundtable on Federal R&D Role (2-11-97)

The nascent Science and Technology Caucus in the Senate held its first public meeting on February 11th, using a roundtable format to encourage discussion with the invited speakers. The session focused on two topics: "the role of the federal government in fostering technology" and "elements of a strategy to fulfill the federal government's R&D role." The roundtable was chaired by Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), who is also chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Space, and Technology. The subcommittee's ranking member, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), also participated as did Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM). The caucus was created to better inform their Senate colleagues about the importance of science and technology issues. In keeping with the current climate on Capitol Hill, Frist and the other senators repeatedly emphasized the bipartisan nature of the caucus and its mission.

The list of invited panelists included:

Most of the participants focused on the strength of American university-based research and the need for improved partnerships between industry, government, and academia. A number of the panelists argued against making distinctions between basic and applied research, emphasizing that R&D is a continuum requiring careful attention to all aspects. There was disagreement, however, on the precise federal role, particularly with respect to technology programs and lessons learned from other countries.

Business professor William Boulton urged a focus on emerging industries and pointed to the industrial policies of countries such as Japan and Korea. In contrast, Raymond Gilmartin from Merck stated that such industrial policies were worthless and that the US competitive advantage lay in its talent and partnerships between industry and academic research, defining the federal role as one of placing the results of basic research into the public domain thus allowing industry to "mine the literature." By fostering open consortia and other pre-competitive partnerships, the federal government can help speed up the time to market. Denis Gray, a sociology professor and expert in university/industry partnerships also argued that innovation was our greatest competitive advantage, and that the primary federal role should be to support the innovative process in the United States.

Paul Horn, head of IBM research, also emphasized that speed to market was they key for competitiveness. He stated that his industry was now measuring time in "web-years" lasting 90 days. Government's role is to stimulate high-risk/high-payoff projects with programs such as the Department of Commerce's Advanced Technology Program (ATP) serving as a bridge from lab to market. He argued that it was not enough to fund exploratory research programs in a vacuum, and he was one of the panelists who emphasized that no "bright line" exists between basic and applied research, that instead it should be viewed as a continuum.

Under Secretary of Commerce Mary Good defined the government role in maintaining unchallenged leadership in university research and graduate education, providing state-of-the-art government laboratories to meet national defense, economic, and social goals, and leveraging overall expenditures through government-academic-industry partnerships.

Like Horn, NSF Director Neal Lane argued that research defies pigeonholing into basic and applied, noting that such distinctions suggested one type of research will "do something" whereas the other is just for curious people. He cited the development of Doppler weather radar as a practical application stemming directly from fundamental research and a desire to better understand and forecast the weather. He repeated assertions from leading economists that science and technology investments drive economic growth and cautioned the senators that just as we cannot predict future scientific breakthroughs, we cannot predict the ramifications of eliminating different areas of federal R&D support. He supported efforts to connect federal investment with the country's needs and pointed to NIH's success in this regard, but at the same time argued that their success was based on the quality of the researchers and the freedom and continuity to pursue their ideas. In stating this, he asked that we not demand that all research be too tightly focused, emphasizing that it is the system as a whole that works because basic research keeps the pipeline full of future technological advances.

Robert Martin from Lucent/Bell Labs ascribed US success in the computer industry to superb inventions, skilled people, and a competitive, innovative marketplace. He credited federal support to university and industrial research labs for the quality and quantity of inventions. He also supported standards for K-12 education as an important component of developing the skilled workforce needed to compete in the future.

Al Narath from Lockheed Martin observed that budget pressures in the post-Cold War period had turned federal science and technology investments into a contentious issue and that bipartisan support was now limited to specific missions such as defense, basic research, and biomedical research. He viewed such retrenchment as unwise at a time when distinctions between civilian and military research and between basic and applied research were becoming increasingly meaningless.

Oak Ridge National Lab Director Alvin Trivelpiece urged the senators to look down the road at future goals and assess how they might be achieved using the tools and knowledge provided by science and technology. He emphasized the need to inspire young people in order to maintain excellence, and he rued the defeat of the Superconducting Supercollider project as a terrible defeat for science. He also reminded the group that to many in industry, research was nothing more than a "variable overhead expense."

MIT President Chuck Vest focused on the need to maintain certain and consistent federal funding for science and technology. Like the other, he emphasized partnerships but defined the federal role in such partnerships as providing the long-term investments needed, what he called "patient capital." Not surprisingly, he encouraged the interweaving of research and education. He also emphasized that research involved risk-taking and exploration, attributes that did not always lend themselves to private sector support.

The senators remarks also focused on the need for greater coordination and partnerships. Rockefeller challenged the others to develop an on-the-spot initiative to improve such partnerships and make them work. While recognizing that the federal role in K-12 education is limited, he nonetheless emphasized that we must work with local and state governments to ensure that we will have the skilled workforce needed in the future. Senator Domenici picked up on Rockefeller's comments and opined that he was very glad that the American university system was not in the same shape as public schools, and he argued that competition between universities was a major factor in their success. Citing MIT's charter, he stated that a major purpose of the university system is to help business achieve in a competitive world. However, linkages between the universities and industry are not particularly good and need improvement. He expressed concern over charges of corporate welfare, but credited the White House for not being the source of such charges. He questioned the value of educating the public on the value of science, arguing instead for capturing their imagination as the space program once did. He went on to say that senators do not know what to do to improve science. In fact, they do not even know where most of the money for science is located. He also questioned the rationale behind the President's budget proposal which allocates 90% of new funding for education at the college level despite the fact that the problem is at the high-school level.

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Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs.

Last updated February 13, 1997

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